Staying Active as We Age and the Benefits of Exercise

Kimberly Huynh, AGNP-BC

As we age, maintaining mobility and staying active becomes increasingly important for our overall well-being. Regular physical activity also offers many benefits, including improved mental health, enhanced balance and fall prevention, increased independence, and a better quality of life overall. 

As a provider, this is true for me too. When I was younger, my dad encouraged us to engage in outdoor activities like swimming and tennis, but it can get harder to stay as active as an adult. After moving to California, I knew my physical and mental health would benefit from more activity and discovered rock climbing. This sport combines the benefits of upper body strength training, weight lifting, and the mental challenge of solving complex routes. It’s just what I needed. And it helps keep my muscles strong, bones healthy, and offers me a sense of community. While movement and activity is great for most people, there are unique benefits and considerations for older adults too.

The Impact of Exercise on Your Health 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, older adults who engage in regular physical activity can improve their bone and joint health, reduce pain associated with arthritis, lower their risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and diabetes, and improve their cognitive function. In addition, the National Institute on Aging cites that maintaining mobility and engaging in regular exercise can lead to a better quality of life too. 

How can exercise impact health? 

  • Exercise can helps improve mood and lower anxiety – Studies have shown that regular exercise can help make you feel better and reduce feelings of anxiety. One recent study in the Journal of Aging and Physical Activity showed that when you exercise, your body's central and sympathetic nervous systems communicate better together which can help you handle stress more easily. 
  • Exercise can help prevent falls – Regular physical activities, especially those that help with balance and strength, can make you less likely to fall according to a Cochrane Review in 2019. This is particularly important as we get older. Exercises that help with balance and use different parts of the body are the best for preventing falls.
  • Exercise can help memory and slow memory loss  – Regular exercise, especially activities that get your heart rate up like walking, jogging, or swimming, can help improve your memory and slow the memory problems that come with diseases like Alzheimer's. A study by the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience found that aerobic exercise can increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning. This is because exercise improves blood flow to your brain and helps new brain cells grow.

Set Exercise Goals and Assess Your Fitness Level  

Before embarking on a new movement plan or exercise routine, it's important to consult with your healthcare provider. They can help you answer questions like:

  • What types of physical activities are most suitable for my age and current health status?
  • How often and for how long should I engage in physical activities?
  • Are there any specific exercises you recommend for improving my balance, strength, and flexibility?
  • Are there any physical activities or exercises I should avoid due to my medical history or current health conditions?
  • How can I safely increase my activity level without risking injury or overexertion?

Select Physical Activities You Enjoy

When establishing goals, keep in mind they will vary based on your own personal preferences, abilities, and needs. For some people, there will be a focus on reducing sedentary behavior and making gradual progress to movement. For others, increasing strength through bodyweight exercises may be preferred. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and it’s ultimately up to you and your doctor to decide what’s appropriate for you. 

As residents of senior living communities, you can also consider joining fitness or movement classes offered in your community. Some popular activities include:

  • Aerobic activities (e.g., walking, swimming, cycling)
  • Strength training (e.g., resistance bands, bodyweight exercises)
  • Balance and flexibility exercises (e.g., yoga, tai chi)
  • Low-impact activities (e.g., water aerobics, chair exercises)

With SilverSneakers, adults 65+ can also access free online classes, in-person classes in local recreation centers, or gym memberships through select Medicare Plans. 

Safety Considerations and Precautions

As you prepare for new movement and activities, remember the following: 

  1. Listen to your body. Pay attention to how your body feels during exercise and adjust your activities accordingly. Stop exercising if you experience pain, dizziness, or shortness of breath.
  2. Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and wear comfortable, supportive shoes and clothing.
  3. Start slowly and adapt. Changes in movement and activity may cause soreness or discomfort. Start with low-impact activities and adjust over time to reduce risk of injury. It’s okay if you need to switch activities or adjust. Be ready and be open for change. 

Monitoring Progress and Staying Motivated

As you work towards increasing activity levels and enhancing mobility, it’s important to monitor progress and stay motivated to maintain long-term success. One effective approach is to track daily activities and achievements, either in a journal or through fitness apps. This can help you  visualize improvements over time and adjust their goals as necessary. Creating a routine in your daily schedule can help too. One of my patients has included a “Parking Lot Special” into her daily schedule where, each day at the same time, she does a long walk around the community starting and ending at the parking lot. 

Additionally, getting support from friends, family, or fitness professionals can create a sense of accountability and provide encouragement too. Participating in group classes or workout sessions with loved ones can also foster a positive, social atmosphere that makes exercising more enjoyable. One of my memory care patients is a former Jazzercise enthusiast and while she may have difficulties with her memory, a Jazzercise video can reignite her excitement to move again. And it brightens up her day! As providers, we’re always looking for moments like these to bring meaningful movement into each patient’s life.

Finally, celebrating milestones and accomplishments, no matter how small, can boost confidence and reinforce the commitment to a healthier lifestyle. Recognizing personal progress and sharing successes with a supportive network can significantly contribute to motivation to stay active and continue working towards your fitness goals. If you’ve achieved a milestone, share it with your family, friends, and with us as your providers. We’ll celebrate with you too!

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